Ira Katznelson raises what seem to be perennial questions of the viability of representative democracy. The perceived failings of the system, particularly in the United States, reverberate far and wide: for example, many Egyptian pro-democracy activists during the post-Mubarak transition period refused to recognize the moral legitimacy of free and fair electoral contests and dismissed their results as mere “ballotocracy.” They wanted a more inclusionary, direct form of democracy that would bypass the messiness of representation, but what they got was authoritarianism. Egypt’s experience provides yet another reason to be concerned about the seeming failures of representative democracy.
In some ways, it is puzzling that the American variant of representative democracy has corroded the brand. The United States is the wealthiest and most powerful state in the modern world; its representative market democracy defeated communism, outlived the imperialist governments of Europe, and created a new system of international relations that respects the sovereign equality of different peoples. It has responded effectively to internal crises, such as the Great Depression, and while its response to the recession of 2008 has faced much criticism, the United States has nevertheless rebounded much more quickly than have its sister democracies in Europe and Japan. Its university system is the envy of the world; its popular culture is eagerly embraced almost everywhere, even by adversaries; and its companies are household names across the globe.
Egyptians wanted direct democracy but got authoritarianism.
But, as Katznelson suggests, there is no necessary relationship between the substantive outputs of a political system and its democratic character. Fascists in the 1930s, like the Chinese government now, justified their rejection of representative institutions on the substantive grounds that their systems effectively responded to the greatest political challenges of their day.
Indeed, one might argue that it was only by becoming formally less democratic that the United States was able to overcome the challenges of the twentieth century. The rise of the administrative state was a significant concession to executive rule-making, regardless of the efforts of constitutional lawyers to reconcile the newly empowered executive with the ideal of representative democracy. The welfare state (albeit a less robust one than in other democracies) also produces in the United States a family resemblance with the Peronism that Katznelson dismisses as ersatz democracy. And, because the welfare state depends on continual economic growth, it promotes the widespread adoption of a consumerist ethos that tends to undermine the positive civic virtues that were once assumed to be a prerequisite for a healthy republic.
Yet these were necessary responses to profound changes in the political economy. Though theoretically problematic, these changes did not undermine the capacity of representative institutions to represent the American people, and in many cases strengthened them by reducing the vulnerabilities of the average citizen. The greatest threat to the vitality of representative democracy therefore lies elsewhere: in the increasingly obsolete structure of those institutions themselves.
James Madison and his allies defended representative democracy against thicker notions of democracy on the grounds that Congress would establish a forum that reconciled popular participation with rational deliberation about the public good and so produce a remedy to the vice of factions without undermining freedom. Today’s Congress, however, does not provide such a forum. The power of state legislatures to gerrymander districts, when combined with the ability of political consultants to exploit modern techniques of data mining to compile and analyze massive amounts of information about the electorate, has created electoral districts that preclude meaningful political competition and undermine the principle of equality: most House seats are uncontested, and a significant majority in the House can be won without winning a national majority of votes cast.
Under the original constitutional scheme, robust state governments underwrote democratic politics at the federal level. With the decline in popular participation in state politics, it has become easy for narrow factions to dominate state politics and use that power to maximize the likelihood that federal officials, whether elected or appointed, will further their interests. The representative and deliberative roles of Congress are left unfilled. If representative democracy is to survive as a viable model of political life in the twenty-first century, then the institutions of representation, and the procedure for the selection of representatives, will need an overhaul. That is the only way they will resist the combination of money, data, and expertise that threaten to transform representative democracy into a playground of well-organized factions.